The Lion and Unicorn are perhaps best known these days as the Royal insignia of the United Kingdom. The emblematic qualities of the lion are well known. We can’t say the same for the unicorn. James I saw the lion and unicorn as solar and lunar. He insisted the unicorn be in the Bible that bore his name.
There is a nursery rhyme about the conflict and the clear associations of the Lion with England and the Unicorn with Scotland:
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round about the town.
However it doesn’t tell us why the Unicorn was chosen for Scotland to be then coupled with the Lion for England. The association of Solar and Lunar makes sense. Writ large it’s a reconciliation of opposites and a harbinger of a united realm. We have the first astrological clue: but there is more to this story.
In the seventeenth century, the Unicorn was added as a constellation: translated as Monocerus, it’s a faint constellation on the celestial equator. This doesn’t really signify very much except the popularity he enjoyed in the seventeenth century.
In works of art, the Lion and Unicorn are shown with other animals, holding the gates to the tent open. There is a lady in the centre, accompanied by a smaller, probably younger lady. Considering the context it’s easy to see this as a form of sexual initiation in the guardian presence of the Lady and the Unicorn. This all starts to look like an elaborate rite of passage.
The unicorn is invariably seen with a female figure. In the picture at the top of the page, she is holding up a mirror to the unicorn. This furthers the lunar imagery by introducing the topos of reflected light. The female figures look like madonnas, as in the golden statuary below. The Virgin holds the Unicorn.
As benevolent as unicorns may be, they were mercilessly hunted in an elaborate tradition. Hildegard of Bingen wrote some material on the best way to do this. She suggested that one should use more than one virgin, One can distract him while the other facilitates his capture.
We need to step back and refer to ancient history and cosmology for the meaning of the Lion and the Unicorn. There is a legend well-known throughout the middle east for which I cannot find a definitive written source. It may very well be in the oral record only.
At the beginning of Creation or dawn of time, the lion and the Unicorn chased each other across the heavens. For 14 years the lion chased the unicorn, and it ran away, and the next 14 years, the unicorn chased the lion, until it began to gain on it, and the lion headed towards earth where, either, it hid behind a tree which the unicorn charged into, got stuck and then eaten by the lion, or, it speared the lion with its horn.
This has to be an allegory for the Lunar cycle in relation to the Solar cycle – using a day for a year. This a cosmic dance, not warfare. It looks as if an ancient pagan legend has been adopted and developed by Christianity. It certainly wasn’t the first time.
This simple but valuable allegory of the Sun and Moon had to accept some additions, even some highly irrational ones. The fairly obvious gesture towards the person of Christ also facilitates the subject of virginity, The Unicorn is only be accessible to virgins.
The Christian iconography of the Madonna and Child seems perfectly at home here; but we still have a Unicorn who doesn’t want to be tamed and has to be trapped into service, which undermines the Christ analogy.
Apparently, he also needs to be fenced in or shall we say harnessed. This seems to refer to the passage in Job wherein the Unicorn is a great power if he can be domesticated. In Job 39:9–12 we read that the unicorn, “whose strength is great,” is useless for agricultural work, refusing to serve man or “harrow (plow) the valley.” He must be tamed.
I can’t help but think the always circular Unicorn enclosures are but another dimension of the marriage of the Sun and Moon.
I’m certain there is a great deal more behind this iconography and allegory, but it really looks like Lunar and Solar iconography gone slightly off the grid.